Auburn Football: Keys to Upsetting Clemson
Needless to say, Auburn is coming off of a disappointing season. No one expected the team to go 7-6 in Gus Malzahn's third season at the helm. Especially, after the team went to the national championship two years prior, but terrible quarterback play and a dismal defense caused the team to slip from the national spotlight. To make matters worse, Jovon Robinson, the team's top returning running back, was dismissed from the team in early August.
Even with everything unraveling on the Plains, Auburn comes into 2016 reinvigorated and ready to prove something, and despite off the field issues, they still have a talented team returning. However, on September 3, they host one of the best teams in the country, Clemson, who has debatably the top quarterback in college football and will be as explosive as ever on offense. What does Auburn have to do to win their first game and start the season off on a high note?
Find a Running Game
Auburn hasn't even played their first game, but they already have to replace the top three running backs from last season in terms of production. Peyton Barber left early for the NFL draft, Roc Thomas transferred out to go play at Jacksonville State, and Jovon Robinson was dismissed from the team.
The only guy returning this year who carried the ball last season is Kerryon Johnson, who has talent, but after an offseason surgery, can he carry the workload? Behind Johnson, Auburn has converted H-back, Kamryn Pettaway, and two freshmen, Malik Miller and Kam Martin. That doesn't mean Auburn can't find a running game, and they'll have to if they want to beat Clemson. Whether it comes from the quarterback position or from one of these guys, Auburn musts run the ball to keep the pressure off whoever does end up starting at quarterback.
Get Rhythm on Offense
There was more to Auburn's woes last season on offense than just quarterback play. For most of the year, the offense just seemed out of place. Things didn't click like they usually do in a Gus Malzahn offense, and the opposing defense more times than not looked like they had Auburn's number. Much of that probably falls back on the playcalling, which in many ways Malzahn addressed in the offseason when he said that he is a football coach and not a CEO, but last year, he tried to be a CEO. That experiment failed.
This year we should see Malzahn more involved on the offensive side of the ball. It's his personality that made Auburn's offense great in the past and that same personality will be what carries the offense moving forward. If anyone can help this team find its rhythm again, it will be Gus Malzahn.
Auburn did not have any legitimate playmakers at any position last season. One might make an argument for Carl Lawson or Carlton Davis, but Lawson missed most the season with an injury, and Davis spent the first half of the season trying to find his way in the SEC as a true freshman. The good news is that both those guys are back, and if they can stay healthy, they'll be impact players for the Tigers. But, who else will step up?
Auburn is in desperate need of a playmaker on offense. Many hoped it would be Jovon Robison, but that ship has sailed. Kerryon Johnson has the potential if he can stay healthy, and perhaps, one of the quarterbacks will step up and prove they are finally a worthy successor of Nick Marshall. No matter where it comes from, someone will have to step up and makes plays if the Tigers want to beat Clemson.
D-Line Needs to Live Up to the Hype
On paper, Auburn has a talented D-line, but that has not translated to the field yet. Carl Lawson has been a destructive force when healthy, but he only played in seven games last season. Then, there is Montravius Adams who has been good but lacks consistency, and of course, Byron Cowart, who was the nation's top recruit coming out of high school, failed to live up to the hype his freshman season.
It's a new year, and these players have another opportunity to prove themselves. With guys like Dontavius Russel and Jeff Holland finding their way in their second season on the Plains and freshmen like Marlon Davidson impressing coaches, Auburn's D-line looks like it could finally be dominant this season. This will be refreshing for a team that desperately needs players to step up if they want a shot at stopping Deshaun Watson of Clemson.
Stop the Big Plays
Clemson has the potential to be the best big play team in the country. They have weapons at every position on offense, and their offense caters to explosive plays. With uncertainty at quarterback, Auburn can't afford to get in a shootout with Clemson, so the defense will have to stop the big plays if they want to stay in the game. If they can't do that, things will get ugly for Auburn.
The good news is that Auburn has quality players on defense at just about every position. The linebacking core is probably the most difficult unit to project because they have to replace their top three guys from last year, but they have talented players who are ready for a chance to prove themselves. The message this offseason has been that everyone has to earn it, and on Sept. 3, Auburn will go out and show how much hard work they have put in this offseason.